Bright Lights, Big Money: Satellite Pics Can Now Measure Economy

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Forget government reports and economists’ notes. A Japanese startup has come up with a much cooler way of measuring the economy: Looking at satellite images of the earth at night.

Actually, it’s an algorithm that “looks” at the images to see changes in the intensity of light coming from particular areas.

It then compares that against economic data like manufacturing and trade to make an accurate estimate of how the economy’s gross domestic product (GDP) is doing.

The concept was developed by Tokyo-based Nowcast, a business consultancy.

satellite image italy europe
A NASA satellite image shows Italy at night, with central and eastern Europe in the background. (Photo: Nasa.gov)

And the real advantage? It can provide that data almost in real time.

“In the case of many economic statistics, there is a considerable lag between the time that they are surveyed and the time they are released,” Nowcast explains on its website. That makes it “extremely difficult not only to predict the future, but even to accurately gauge the current situation.”

Company CEO Ryota Hayashi told Bloomberg that testing in Japan showed the system was more accurate than surveys of economists carried out before official numbers come out. Nowcast aims to sell its services to companies that rely on those forecasts.

It plans to roll the product out in China, Japan, Taiwan and the U.S. in February.

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